CAIRO Egypt's army chief General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi gave his clearest signal yet on Saturday of his interest in becoming president, a move that could turn the clock back to the days when the presidency was controlled by men from the military.
Sisi, who ousted Egypt's first democratically elected leader Mohamed Mursi last July after mass protests against his one-year rule, is widely expected to seek the top job but has not yet announced plans to run.
"If I run then it must be at the request of the people and with a mandate from my army... We work in a democracy," he said, speaking at an army seminar in Cairo.
After the army overthrew the Islamist Mursi, it appointed an interim president and outlined a roadmap for democratic transition.
Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood supporters, who accuse the army of staging a coup, have held frequent protests calling for his reinstatement. But the security forces have launched a wide crackdown against the group, arresting thousands on charges of violence.
Egypt is set to hold a referendum on a new constitution on January 14-15, a major milestone in that roadmap which will clear the way for presidential and parliamentary elections. Analysts and politicians say it is unlikely that Sisi will announce plans to run before the referendum is complete.
The referendum marks the first time Egyptians have voted since Mursi's removal and is seen to be as much a public vote of confidence in the roadmap and Sisi as in the charter itself.
The state MENA news agency quoted Sisi on Saturday as urging Egyptians to "assume national responsibility and turn out in force to vote in the constitutional referendum in order to correct the democratic path and build a modern democratic state."
There is little doubt the popular Sisi would win the presidential election. He is seen as a strong man capable of bringing stability to Egypt after more than three years of turmoil. He has had songs dedicated to him and his face appears on chocolates and posters on the streets of Egypt.
While Sisi enjoys broad support from Egyptians who are happy to see an end to Islamist rule, he is reviled by Mursi's supporters who view him as the mastermind of a bloody military coup against the country's first freely elected head of state.
Sisi's candidacy would further deepen the divisions between the many Egyptians who believe a firm hand is needed to steer the country through crisis and Islamists bearing the brunt of a state crackdown on dissent.
Security forces have launched a massive crackdown against Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood, which it calls a terrorist group, arresting its leaders and forcing others underground.
In an interview with pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat on Saturday, the chairman of the constituent assembly which drafted the constitution said he expected Sisi to run for president in response to the popular demand.
"We must adhere to popular opinion who want the man and this is a commission for the man. There is no escape from that... The people say they want Sisi and we must submit to that," Amr Moussa told al Hayat.
(Reporting by Asma Alsharif and Omar Fahmy; Editing by Gareth Jones)